Saturday, May 31, 2008

Remembering Mexico 1968: What Has Changed?

Mexico has never functioned as a true democracy. For close to a hundred years, Mexico was the domain of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), an autocratic regime marked by co-optation of dissidents and the rule of the iron fist for those who refused to bend. Given the highly stratified nature of Mexican society, these autocracies protected the plutocracy that hoards the country’s wealth. The wealthy, ruling elites are educated in the best universities of the United States and Europe and they closely identify with the upper classes of First World countries. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of Mexicans scrape a living on meager wages. No wonder that so many Mexicans make the trip north to the U.S. where they hope to earn a living wage. These social inequities lead to eruptions which are invariably brutally repressed. One such eruption marked a milestone in Mexican history, the student uprising and massacre during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

BBC Report: Mexico City Massacre 1968

1968: Student riots threaten Mexico Olympics

More than 25 people have been killed during a vicious gun battle in Mexico City just days before the Olympic Games are due to begin.

Thousands of students had gathered for a meeting organised by the National Strike Council in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco to protest against the military occupation of the National Polytechnic Institute.

The protesters, many of whom were women and children, had been planning to march through a working-class suburb of the city, but by early evening military personnel in armoured vehicles had surrounded the square.

The Mexican government say "agitator groups" among the students began shooting at the crowds from buildings, which resulted in a 90-minute gun fight.


General Marcelino Garcia Barragan, Mexico's defence minister said the army began firing into the crowd in self-defence after they found themselves targets of sniper fire from buildings in the square.

But several eye-witnesses claim the army entered the square in seven or eight armoured tanks and began shooting first.

After the fighting had subsided dozens of bodies lay strewn across the square, many more were injured.

More than 500 people have been arrested.

The violence follows weeks of demonstrations by students demanding democratic reform and social justice. They have used the international focus on Mexico City because of the Olympics to promote their message.

In September, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, in a bid to suppress the protests and cause minimum disruption to the Olympics, ordered the military occupation of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.

At this stage it is not clear whether the 7,000 athletes, currently preparing for the Games 11 miles away from Tlatelolco in the Olympic Village, are in danger. It is the first time the Olympics have been held in a Latin American country.

Lord Exeter, British vice-president of the International Olympic Committee told the Times: "The riots have nothing to do with the Olympic Games. The students are not protesting against the games but against the Mexican government."

In Context

Following the massacre the Mexican government, facing one of its worst crises ever, launched a huge cover-up operation.

The death-toll still remains uncertain. Some say it runs into thousands although it is thought to be between 200 and 300. Eye-witnesses say bodies were removed from the scene throughout the night of 2 October in dustbin lorries.

The following day, Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, said the Olympics would go ahead, saying none of the violence had ever been directed towards the Olympics.

In October 2003 it emerged that America had played a key role in the massacre.

Amidst fears the riots would disrupt the Olympic Games the CIA had been monitoring the student actions in Mexico daily. As a result they sent military radios, weapons, ammunition and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the crisis.

BBC Report: 1968: Black athletes make silent protest

Two black American athletes have made history at the Mexico Olympics by staging a silent protest against racial discrimination.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American National Anthem played during the victory ceremony.

The pair both wore black socks and no shoes and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. They were demonstrating against continuing racial discrimination of black people in the United States.

As they left the podium at the end of the ceremony they were booed by many in the crowd.

'Black America will understand'

At a press conference after the event Tommie Smith, who holds seven world records, said: "If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say 'a Negro'. We are black and we are proud of being black.

"Black America will understand what we did tonight."

Smith said he had raised his right fist to represent black power in America, while Carlos raised his left fist to represent black unity. Together they formed an arch of unity and power.

He said the black scarf represented black pride and the black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America.

Within a couple of hours the actions of the two Americans were being condemned by the International Olympic Committee.

A spokesperson for the organisation said it was "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit."

It is widely expected the two will be expelled from the Olympic village and sent back to the US.

In September last year Tommie Smith, a student at San Jose State university in California, told reporters that black members of the American Olympic team were considering a total boycott of the 1968 games.

'Dirty negro'

He said: "It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro."

The boycott had been the idea of professor of sociology at San Jose State university, and friend of Tommie Smith, Harry Edwards.

Professor Edwards set up the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and appealed to all black American athletes to boycott the games to demonstrate to the world that the civil rights movement in the US had not gone far enough.

He told black Americans they should refuse "to be utilised as 'performing animals' in the games."

Although the boycott never materialised the OPHR gained much support from black athletes around the world.

That evening, the silver medallist in the 200m event, Peter Norman of Australia, who was white, wore an OPHR badge in support of Smith and Carlos' protest.

But two days later the two athletes were suspended from their national team, expelled from the Olympic village and sent home to America.

Many felt they had violated the Olympic spirit by drawing politics into the games.

On their return both men were welcomed as heroes by the African-American community but others regarded them as trouble-makers. Both received death threats.

Thirty years after their protest, the two men, who went on to become high school athletics coaches, were honoured for their part in furthering the civil rights movement in America.

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